Painted circa 1910, Morgan Russell's Synchromist Still Life is among the earliest of the artist's celebrated abrstract works. Russell's transformation of traditional still life elements into bold, vibrating areas of color brilliantly exhibits his highly modern Synchromist theories. The first American response to European abstract art, Russell's Synchromist works certainly number among the most important examples of early American modernist painting.
Born and raised in America, though half French, Russell began studying painting under Robert Henri in New York before leaving for Paris in 1908. Working and living the artist's life in Montparnasse, Russell quickly befriended such legendary figures as Gertrude and Leo Stein, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and August Rodin.
"Indebted to Matisse, with whom he studied and to whom he never failed to pay respect, Russell was nevertheless pleased that his work could not be attributed to 'a disciple of Matisse.' With another American, Macdonald Wright, he had evolved an artistic doctrine they called Synchromism." (American Genius in Review No. I, Dallas, Texas, 1960, n.p.) They were the first Americans to develop a modern style in response to the abstract art that was emerging abroad.
It was Russell and Stanton Macdonald-Wright's theory that paintings could be created based on sculptural forms interpreted two-dimensionally through the knowledge of color properties. Synchromist paintings stressed an emphasis on color balance and rhythms, and incorporated color theorist Michel-Eugene Chevreul's notions that warm colors advance and cool colors recede. Russell and Macdonald-Wright abandoned local color and began to use color instead to define three-dimensional qualities of abstract shapes, frequently concealing recognizable forms and figures. The two artists first exhibited their Synchromist works at the Neue Kunstsalon in Munich in 1913. Their second exhibition of Synchromist paintings was at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in Paris from October to November 1913.
Russell's early training as an architect remained apparent in the substantial qualities of his abstract paintings such as Synchromist Still Life. "For all its theoretical concentration on color, his painting has always been sculptural and architectonic. It is chunky, like the muscles of his own frame. But his view of the disposition of parts, of their spirited reaction to an orthodox opinion of gravity in its expression through art, is what counts him apart." (American Genius in Review No. I, n.p.)
Like many of Russell's abstract works, Synchromist Still Life is distilled from figural representations. Indeed, he once remarked: "The spiral like form of the organic animal or human figure is analogous to the rising spirals of color from the dark deep...and only that work wherein this complex of spiral influences is felt strongly can appear live and plastic--the lights are the bulging parts of these spirals and betray their existence." (as quoted in M.S. Kushner, Morgan Russell, New York, 1990, p. 21)
Russell's avant-garde style of colorful abstract painting had a profound impact on the future of American modernist painting, paving the way for further exploration of abstract art. Synchromist Still Life is a bold and wonderful example from this pivotal period in American painting.